An emphasis on historical herbs from an expert

Tucked away in the center of Lynchburg’s Old City Cemetery is the Pest House Medical Museum. 

Volunteer horticulturist, Whitney Chauta, inspires and educates others about medicinal herbs through her in-depth demonstration at  Old City Cemetery. She gives presentations on both the rich history of the museum and the medicinal herbs themselves.

In the 1840s, the Pest House Medical Museum was an office that belonged to Dr. John Terrell, a country physician who revolutionized the medical practice. Contrary to the popular belief at the time, Terrell believed in the importance of cleanliness.  Cleanliness wasn’t always a given in the past. A lack of it became one of the biggest killers of the American Civil War. 

During the Civil War, every city had a “Pest House,” distinguished by its putrid yellow color so that everyone would know to stay away from the infected inside. Medical practices back then were still archaic compared to what we have today with the luxuries of modern healthcare, scientific research and clean hospitals.  

The  Pest House was a part of the devastating landscape of Civil War-torn America and used as a desperate measure to try and lessen the terrible effects of the smallpox outbreaks during the war. The efforts of Terrell to improve cleanliness within the Pest House reduced the mortality rates from 50% to 5% — an incredible breakthrough. 

Recently, Lynchburg’s Old City Cemetery put on a tour of Dr. John Terrell’s Pest House and medicinal herbs garden. Walking up the mossy, stone steps of the herbal garden, visitors were met with the strong scents of lavender, mint and sage. Everywhere the eye could see, there was a different type of medicinal herb that could likely treat a multitude of ailments. 

As the tour continued, Chauta began explaining how the medicinal garden was historically created during the 1980s. Different sections of the garden denoted different herbs. Chauta described how there was a tonic, gastric, cold and flu and topical section of the garden, cutting clippings of the herbs for the tour to examine. 

Chauta discussed the uses of spearmint and apple mint, showing how one could tell the difference between them since apple mint has a fuzzy texture, whereas spearmint is smooth. Chauta mentioned that the primary use Terrell had for mint would have been for flavoring purposes and tonics. 

Next, Chauta introduced the visitors to lavender. She passed out sprigs of the herb so the guests could feel and smell it. Lavender would have treated muscle spasms. Lamb’s ear was a popular herb that Chauta personally found fascinating due to its incredibly soft leaves. The leaves  would have been used for bandaging soldier’s wounds. 

Later, Chauta led guests over to a neighboring field with some benches and brought out a series of mason jars of tea she had made from some of the medicinal herbs, allowing everyone to sample all of the types of teas. Chauta had prepared a flavorful lavender and lemon balm tea, sage and lemon balm tea and a mint tea with honey. The lavender and lemon balm tea could be used to uplift and calm someone, whereas the sage and lemon balm tea could be used to soothe a sore throat. 

Chauta explained that for every three soldiers killed, two of them died from disease. 

“Approaching (horticulture) as a community is the best way to be successful in a capitalist sense of making money off of a garden,” Chauta said. “It would become a collaborative effort with the people around you, to work together and build something that is more stable and successful.”

Chauta also explained that one of the most important herbs Terrell would have used during the Civil War would have been bitters— “anything to get their (soldiers) digestive systems going in the smallpox hospital,” as she described it.

“I have the privilege of saying I can have a relaxed, laid-back approach to my gardening because my family is not depending on me making money off of it,” Chauta said.

Although Chauta appreciates horticulture as just a hobby, she encourages other plant enthusiasts to be well-educated in herbalism. After all, having that knowledge could save someone’s life one day. 

Davis is a feature reporter for the Liberty Champion.

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